The Humble Etude: The Mainstay of String Technique

If you’ve ever marveled at a jaw-dropping performance by a string player on YouTube (you know the ones, where their left hand is climbing up and down the fingerboard at lightening speed while the bow works to light a fire above the fingerboard?), chances are the performer has spent significant quality time in a practice room somewhere, working on etudes.

Image via Wikipedia

Etudes focus on one or two particular skills at a time, offering dedicated exercises presented as a short musical piece for working on the skills in varied settings. Often an etude will look repetitious- this is on purpose! Encountering similar technique in an increasingly varied setting over the course of the piece helps your brain and hands become accustomed to performing the technique in virtually any piece, so when you see it in the new concerto your teacher assigns, you’ll be better prepared to give it a shot. You may also find your teacher switching up bowing styles on pieces with repetitious eighth- or sixteenth- note passages, for much the same reason.

Instead of looking on this change with dread, think of it as a new obstacle course of sorts for your bow or your left hand. Part of your job as a student is to teach both your left hand and bow to become a kind of acrobat, if you’ll pardon the analogy.

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Image via Mark Setchell, Flickr

Think about what your left hand does as it’s working: it MUST land at precisely the right point, at precisely the right time, and often this involves physically moving your arm en concert with your hand and fingers! Any misstep or error in timing results in incorrect playing, and you don’t have much of a safety net, in most instances. Your bow also must balance and control its speed, point of contact, direction, and on-/ off-string contact so it can “catch” what your fingers are doing at the other end of your instrument. If these two things aren’t exactly together, everything falls apart! Etudes are designed to help you practice getting your two aspects together, and I hope the next time you’re assigned an etude, you will look forward to finding the “secret” of the etude: the skills necessary to play the etude to its potential. Good luck, and have fun!

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Some Thoughts and Videos on Vibrato

In my studio, I find myself explaining basic skills in many different ways, in order to best help my student understand and master a certain concept. The basic skill’s execution stays the same, of course, but each student’s understanding dictates how I teach.

When it comes to teaching vibrato, however, I find myself somewhat at a disadvantage: vibrato’s main execution is fundamentally the same, but for each student, the mechanics can vary widely- especially when first learning! In my early years on the instrument I benefited greatly from hearing several different teachers explain the mechanics and process- so here I provide something of the same experience for my students, through the wonder of YouTube. These videos are appropriate for both violin and viola players, so don’t be deterred by not seeing your instrument’s name at the top of the video! If you’ve struggled to get the mechanics of the vibrato just right, these videos may be the help you need with whatever’s making vibrato difficult. During the exercises, I encourage you to have our your instrument and follow along with the instruction, just to see if you get any different results. It may be especially beneficial to cycle through more than once!

One final note: these teachers may have slightly differing ideas about the “proper” way to perform an excellent vibrato, but ultimately the correct explanation is the one you benefit from using the most. 

 

Professor V: Violin Lesson #22, Vibrato (Hand/ Wrist)

 

Professor V: Violin Lesson #23, Vibrato (Arm)

Red Desert Violin: Quick Basic Tips for Violin Vibrato

Violin Lab Channel:Violin Vibrato Slow Motion Dos and Don’ts

All Things Strings: Improve Your Vibrato

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What’s in a String? Choosing New Strings for Your Instrument

As the school year approaches, now is a GREAT time to think about re-stringing your instrument for the upcoming school year. If you start now, those strings can be fully adjusted and raring to go on the first day of orchestra. So you browse on over to an online string seller, or visit your local music store, and you find yourself accosted with all manner of pricing and variety of strings. In order to help you navigate your OWN way through choosing a set of strings, here are a few helpful articles for your edification. Note: several of these articles reference violin strings, but the same principles apply when choosing viola strings, so don’t miss out on the wealth of information here!
Ultimately, choosing your own strings based on what qualities you want to enhance in your own instrument takes a large step toward developing your own unique sound.

1. Fein Violins: Choosing Strings to Improve Your Sound

“There is a lot of confusion about strings, since there are no universal gauge or tension standards for manufacturers to follow, so let’s clear up some of the mystery and take the fear out of experimenting with strings by explaining some terms. Hopefully this will allow you to make confident and informed string choices which will improve the sound of your instrument.”

This article has quite an extensive explanation of the construction of a string, including some amazing microscopic close-ups of different strings. They cover gauge, tension, core, and winding- and even debunk a commonly-held myth about the earliest strings. Don’t miss this one!

2. Ifshin Violins: Guide to Choosing and Using Strings

“Each different type of string has its own special characteristics, which can change the sound of your instrument. These characteristics can make subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in the quality, playability, volume and responsiveness of the instrument. In some cases, changing one or more strings can improve a weakness in a specific part of the range of the instrument. “

This article has similar information about gauge and core qualities in strings, and also includes good examples of different varieties. They also have a short explanation of how to change strings, and the tips here will be beneficial in ensuring even wear and quality sound over the life of the string.

3. Johnson String Instrument: Choosing Strings for Your Instrument

“Notes about strings:

  • The most popular strings are the mid-priced synthetic-core strings.
  • Using gut-core strings can warm up an instrument instantly; the Passione brand stabilize in pitch very quickly compared to other gut-core strings.
  • Players often start with the medium gauge or tension of strings (when offered a choice) to see how their instrument responds to the manufacturer’s generally balanced tension, before experimenting with different gauges and tensions.”

This article helps identify particular characteristics of your instrument, before delving into the characteristics of strings, perhaps to best give you an idea of things for which to look as you’re learning. They include as well information on strings for electric instruments! The section on string installation includes a helpful video, and I recommend reading over this section thoroughly before installing your first string: the advice about peg problems is exactly how I handle sticky pegs on my students’ instruments.

4. Shar Music: Choosing the Right Set of Strings

An interesting approach to helping players choose the right type of strings, Shar presents a graphic interpretation of the general qualities of each string brand and variety- a graph! Here’s their explanation of how the graph can be read, but I recommend visiting the website to get the full effect of this creative guide to strings.

“Projection: Next to each string set there’s a graphic that indicates that set’s level of projection. The levels of projection range from “Mild” to “Aggressive.”

Smooth/Textured: 
The X axis (horizontal) depicts the continuum between smooth and textured string sets. Textured sets are complex sounding with many colors and rich, resonating overtones. Smooth sets are very clear and focused. The tone is clean and straight. 

Direct/Subtle: The Y axis (vertical) depicts the continuum between direct and subtle string sets. A direct string set has a brilliant, distinct tone designed for soloists to cut through piano or orchestral textures. A subtle set doesn’t overpower. They blend well and often have a dark undertone.”

5. Violin Music School: How to Choose Violin Strings

“Violin strings, just like any other string, do result in wear and tear. But unlike other strings, you do not have to wait for it to break before you replace them. You should replace your violin strings on a constant basis, depending on the frequency you play your violin.”

This article, along with basic explanations of the benefits of each type of string, also details the disadvantages of each variety- which I always appreciate in a review! Changing strings, a handy string identification guide, and links to reviews of specific brands/ varieties of strings are included as well.

 

Have fun with all your new-found knowledge as you choose new strings, and best of luck as well as you prepare for another school year!

 

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Breathing With Your Bowing

Ever found yourself holding your breath when trying to “save” bow on a long note?

Bowing is the “breath” of a stringed instrument. Where brass and wind players (and of course vocalists!) use breath to move air to resonate vocal cords or reeds or an air chamber, we use the bow to resonate the string in a sustained tone.

Singers and wind players spend a lot of time learning how to breathe for certain notes and phrases. The dynamics, articulation, and even intonation of notes depend upon intensity and amount of air released- to say breath comprises the most complex aspect of playing a wind instrument (or singing) would be absolutely right!

So what about you- what about your bow? Sure, you can get sound from almost any sort of bow stroke, so long as the bow is moving and has hair left in the direction the bow is moving. The quality of sound, however, depends entirely on how much/ what speed/ what intensity of bow is used.

In a passage with a sustained, melodic phrase, using as much bow as possible ensures a tone quality worthy of the phrase. Don’t limit yourself on how much bow you consider “usable”- and you know who you are! The rosin content at the very tip and/ or right at the end of the frog on your bow is a centimeter thick with neglect from being ignored. When you’re practicing that sustained, melodic phrase, take that bow off the string and try air-bowing through the phrase while breathing along with your bow- exhale on down bows, inhale on up- bows. Measure your breath like you measure your bow: you should be completely out of breath at the tip of your bow, and have no more comfortable room to inhale at the end of an up bow. The phrase should begin to feel like more normal breathing, as you practice moving your bow at the correct speed so as to maximize your bow’s surface area on each bow stroke.

A violin teacher over at violinlab.com has posted an inspiring video this very topic, and shows (with a beautiful rendition of the intro to Saint-Saens’ “The Swan”) how the breath can bring life into a phrase. Check it out!

Another good, rudimentary way to practice bowing- at any stage of learning- is to practice son filé. Son filé means to hold a single bow stroke for 60 seconds or more. Sounds like a difficult task, huh?

Teachers of the past like Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, in their books on violin practice, and each included exercises for practice of son filé. Each of these teachers included explanations:

 

Ivan Galamian: “what breath control is for a singer — the ability to sing long phrases without having to interrupt them for a new breath — bow control in a long, sustained stroke is for the violinist — the ability to sustain a long tone or musical phrase without having to change bow.” (source)

 

Simon Fischer: “[son filé] are among the oldest, best-known, most popular and also most appropriate of tone and bow exercises… Their simplicity and usefulness … give them a place of honour in the arsenal of bowing and tonal exercises.” (source)

at the very frog of the bow

 

at the very tip of the bow

 

Son filé may not be defined in identical terms by everyone involved in violin discipline, but the practice of son filé may help with a larger issue: tension. When we learn to breathe along with the bow, ultimately we are helping to eliminate unnecessary tension.

Misapplication and an excess of tension hinders every technique on the violin, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the bow stroke.

So, if you find yourself gripping your bow too hard and twinging a nerve in your palm, practice air bowing with your breathing.

If you find yourself breathing shallowly as your try to eke out just one more beat under a long bow, practice the passage son filé. 

But most importantly, whenever you realize you’re feeling tension… Stop, assess, and address it!

And, if you need help in this journey to alleviate tension, let me know. I have lesson times open!

 

 

 

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